Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Trips to the Moon


Lucian of Samosata Trips to the Moon (160AD)
Just to get the moaning over and done with, I think this is the fourth book I've bought from Ron Miller's Black Cat Press and the high quota of typos is beginning to annoy. Whilst it's fucking great to be able to get one's mitts on the kind of obscure and peculiar historical material in which Black Cat specialise, you would think someone might have bothered proof reading the things before loading the files up to Lulu. Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C41+ had presumably been prod-uced by sub-mitting an old copy of the book through some sort of op-tical character recognition soft-ware resulting in weirdly hypenated words occurring mid-sentence all the way through, former page numbers popping up mid-paragraph, and so on. In addition to this, I gather that whatever files were submitted to Lulu were almost certainly some Microsoft abomination - as opposed to a proper PDF - which can always be relied upon to change its mind about formatting at last minute when submitted to print on demand publishers, meaning

shitloads of

wonky paragraph breaks. It's not a massive problem, and doesn't really have to detract from the text or the pleasure of reading it, but it's kind of irritating, as is the fact of the footnotes to True History beginning at number seventeen and then even missing out a few of the associated explanations.

Lucian's True History, as reproduced herein, is reputedly the oldest surviving text which can be termed science-fiction by some definition, that definition being that it describes, amongst other things, a voyage to the moon made by a sailing boat full of philosophical types swept up in that general direction by the wind. Brian Aldiss discounts this as science-fiction due to the absence of anything pretending to be scientific even by second century terms, but Jesus - I'm not convinced it's really worth having the argument given the entirely unscientific science-fiction which has been written over the years, some of it by Brian Aldiss. I realise Frankenstein qualifies by virtue of medical details, but technology was never really the point of that story any more than it is of True History.

The point of True History is revealed in Lucian's Instructions for Writing History which is also handily reproduced herein.

In history, nothing fabulous can be agreeable; and flattery is disgusting to all readers, except the very dregs of the people; good judges look with the eyes of Argus on every part, reject everything that is false and adulterated, and will admit nothing but what is true, clear, and well expressed.

I get the impression that by this juncture Lucian had sat through one too many accounts of mighty warriors kebabing a hundred enemies with the single toss of a spear, and thinking something akin to fuck it, but in Greek or possibly Syrian, wrote True History thus inventing sarcasm. Absurdity is piled high, one ludicrous development after another, and so our lunar voyage is followed by excursions to an island made of cheese and inside a whale in which the ship finds itself trapped. It's comical, presumably intended to shame historians of the day into behaving themselves, and is a lot of fun even with my scant understanding of the philosophical giants out of whom Lucian seems to be taking the piss in the closing pages.

Also included is Lucian's Icaro-Menippus - a Dialogue in which Menippus takes to the air by the same means as Icarus, meets the Gods, and hears how they apparently regard most of the philosophers and theologians who follow them as a bunch of clowns. I'm not quite sure why Lucian specifically recruited the satirist who unwittingly lent his name to the genre of Mennipean satire for his tale, at least not beyond his quite obviously being a fan, but it places True History firmly in a tradition which led to Gargantua and Pantagruel, Gulliver's Travels, and others - in case that much wasn't obvious. In other words, it more or less does what science-fiction is supposed to do, even by the terms of Brian Aldiss; and it's a thumping good read, in case I haven't made that clear.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Blade Runner, a Movie


William S. Burroughs Blade Runner, a Movie (1979)
When Ridley Scott made a film based on certain plot details of Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? there was a problem with the title, which Ridley believed would mislead members of the public into believing they were watching a film about robotic shepherds on the space farms of the future. He felt it didn't seem sufficiently exciting to sell the tale of a man who catches naughty robots from space in the future only to discover that robots have feelings too. Ridley had just been to see The Great Gatsby, and was discussing it with a film man who told him that the name had come from a famous book. This seemed very clever, Ridley decided, and so gave his project a title chosen by this ingenious method of giving something a name. It was to be The Grapes of Wrath. Unfortunately the problem with this new title was, so Ridley realised, that it would mislead members of the public into assuming they were watching a film about genetic mutants with giant grape-crushing robo-feet in the space vineyards of the future. The name was changed again to The Caves of Steel, and then The Time Machine before finally settling on Robots Have Feelings Too; which is how it all came to be.

I had assumed this slim volume to be the source of the title, but oddly it turns out to be a film treatment written by Burroughs and based on a 1974 novel of the same name by Alan E. Nourse, and from what I gather of the original version, there's neither connection nor even any theme in common with Han Solo punching women to the romantic sounds of a distant saxophone before realising that robots are sort of like people when you really think about it. I'm not sure I've ever read a film treatment before, so I couldn't say whether this is typical of its kind, although I suspect possibly not because it's certainly typical Burroughs. It's more or less as though one of his novels has been forced to keep going in a straight line for a hundred or so pages, with dystopian material from The Blade Runner intercut with Burroughs' customary descriptions of men's bottoms, boys on rollerskates, and those conspiracy theories which chime with the medical theme of Nourse's novel. The themes in question equate to Jello Biafra's more recent observation that America doesn't have a health industry so much as a disease industry, with corporations effectively holding us all to ransom, all exaggerated into a traditional dystopian narrative; so you can sort of see how Burroughs might have warmed to this undertaking. Typically he brings his fair share of preposterous horseshit to the party, the usual cures for cancer which they don't want us to know about and so on; but Burroughs usually manages to say something interesting even when he's talking out of his arse.

Blade Runner, a Movie is probably too short, and too much of a novelty to quite rank as life-changing, but its message - that authority figures are inherently untrustworthy - is always worth repeating, particularly now that western capitalist society can no longer even be bothered to lie about its agenda; and it features Doctor Benway, albeit with the serial numbers filed off, meaning that the novella is at least funnier than the more famous special effects showreel with which it shares a title and nothing else. I can see why this version maybe wouldn't have worked so well as a film, as was someone's original intention, or at least not as a mainstream film, but, you know, not everything has to be a movie.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Twenty-One Stories


Graham Greene Twenty-One Stories (1954)
Here I am once again finding myself in the embarrassing position of having remained mostly unmoved by the works of an undoubted literary giant, thus sneering forth from the conspicuously unlofty position of my massive pile of Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica tie-in novels: Graham Greene is okay but he's no Terrance Dicks.

This collection was on the syllabus of my English literature 'O' level class taken back in 1785, and I remembered enjoying it, and making occasional mental notes to find a copy and read it again some day, and there it was in the book store, the same edition with the same cover and everything. More recently I took several shots at Greene's The Power & the Glory, giving up each time, finding it simply too depressing; so I was hoping this might constitute a sort of combined reintroduction and inoculation by which I might give the cunt another go because I dislike giving up on a book, particularly when I'm fairly sure it has some value which I am simply unable to appreciate, for whatever reason.

Anyway, I guess maybe we only read one or two of these as part of our class, there being very little which rings any significant bells. On the other hand, I am reminded of the difficulty I had with The Power & the Glory, namely that while I don't think it's really necessary to either like or identify with characters in order to appreciate their stories, there are some seriously disagreeable fuckers here. The Destructors for example tells of a bunch of urchinous types destroying someone's house, working so as to systematically reduce it to a pile of rubble in the owner's absence. It's weirdly fascinating, and the point is that destruction can be a creative act, according to some bloke on the internet, but it makes for some fucking depressing shit when read in a hospital bed whilst hooked up to a drip during a thunderstorm, as I was. I realise Graham Greene wasn't directly responsible for my hospitalisation, but he might at least have shed a little light upon the darkness from time to time.

His theme seems to be salvation under appalling circumstances, finding the small but beautiful in even the most relentlessly grim of situations. Mostly he succeeds, I suppose, but I was left wondering if it was worth the trouble in many cases. There's the girl in A Drive in the Country seeking to escape her miserable suburban existence, driven into the arms of a man who suggests a suicide pact as an alternative to the certainty of everything being shit forever, which in turn drives her back to a miserable suburban existence which she now accepts as liveable shit. Woo hoo. Is that a Huey Lewis & the News album I hear playing in the background?

There are powerful and poignant moments, and bags of atmosphere, and a tremendous sense of place with stories set in Africa and Mexico, and it's quite clearly myself in the wrong here, but I simply expected more. Instances such as the crushing yet wonderful conclusion of The Blue Film, for example, seem bogged down with the greater aggregate weight of horrible people doing horrible things for no good reason. The Hint of an Explanation seems to offer some sort of redemptive message in the priest having found God and by extension his calling, true happiness and so on during a confrontation with profound malice, but it would be more convincing if that malice weren't such a cock-obvious pantomime villain - a man named Blacker who wants to get hold of a communion wafer in order to defile it, as it was implied in my English class back in 1785.

'What do you mean, sir?' someone asked, as I recall.

'Who knows?' Dave Rodan, our teacher, responded. 'Maybe he wanted to shit on it or something?'

Yeah, because that really happens, just like all those Muslamic gangs kidnapping human babies and selling them to Chinese restaurants innit. Facetiousness aside, Greene's need for some negative force within his narrative sometimes seems to undermine the integrity of the whole, and so the whole effects to smother whatever small light he may have wished to shine at the end of the tunnel.

I don't know. He was patently a great writer with a wonderful technique and clear compelling prose, but I just expected to enjoy it a little more than I did. I loves me some grim as a rule, but this made me want to watch Mexican daytime television shows.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Inferior Comedy


Rachel Redhead The Inferior Comedy part one (2014)
Some small portion of this collection began life as Doctor Who fan fiction, something to which I might not ordinarily have been too well disposed; but as is explained in the afterword, the author became quickly frustrated with the inherent limitations of borrowed characters and subjected them all to major surgery. Such transformations seem to be a common theme in what I've read of Rachel Redhead's writing, or if not specifically transformations, then the instability of identity and, in some cases, gender. Everything here is subject to change, but before I give any false impression of this being some frowning treatise:

Mechi waited until the wash cycle had completed and the water emptied out. Then she opened the door in her body and took out the hot, dry washing. She put it into the bright orange basket for later sorting before hastily refilling the cleaning liquid tray for the next load.

The Engineer looked at his new robot companion. 'I'm still not sure why you wanted that upgrade.'

'You biologicals always think in such limited terms. I've always wanted to be a washing machine, ever since I first became sentient all those years ago.' Mechi remembered the hassle she'd had trying to get her intelligence recognised the day after she'd announced she was quitting her job. There had been court cases and all sorts of legal wrangles and all those tests and even a psychiatrist had been involved at one time. He'd gotten upset because she'd crushed his precious couch. 'Even though I have a terrible fear of water and, strangely, toffee yoghurt, I've never imagined myself being anything else than this. It's just such a great comfort to have a load of washing on fast spin.'

The Inferior Comedy is actually part one of a two volume collection of short stories written over a number of years, although given the thematic consistency of these stories, and the way in which even the narrative sometimes appears fluid beneath the details by which it is described, you can read the whole as a single thing in the same way as you can read Burroughs' Exterminator as a novel if you so chose, which I did. Burroughs probably seems a peculiar name to invoke, but the more I read of Rachel Redhead's work, the clearer it seems that far from being a former fan fictioneer who has found a way to crack jokes without it reading like a bad Douglas Adams impersonation - a common pitfall for a few of Redhead's contemporaries, as I've noticed - she seems kind of unique, almost her own category. I suppose maybe if you imagine a female Burroughs with Care Bears rather than heroin as the drug of choice - given the often wilfully pink frilly edge to the narrative and all the hugging; but most of all it reminds me of Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time books, demonstrating that same cheery disregard for science-fiction convention, and doing more or less what the hell it likes. It's often genuinely surreal, and surreal in the sense of André Breton's pals breaking the boundaries between the conscious and subconscious rather than some crap band slapping a photograph of a banana on their album cover; and this contrasts with well-grounded bursts of kitchen-sink realism to form a thoroughly convincing whole; which is why it works so well, I'm guessing.

Rachel Redhead's prose short-circuits expectation and makes free association in a way that makes for a strangely liberating read, and it helps that the jokes are funny without being the whole point of the thing. The fan fiction roots are easy enough to spot if you're looking, but the whole has long since transformed into something far more individual and weirdly fascinating than the fiction of which Redhead was a fan.

I must admit I approached this one with caution. I had read and enjoyed her Raithaduine Saga a couple of years ago, although it had some problems with typos, punctuation, and repetition of certain words - specifically reading like it could have benefited from some proofing. There are a few of the same issues here, but much less so, and her writing is itself much tighter, seemingly more confident and less inclined to peculiar tangents unless there's a really good reason, which admittedly there often is.

If this were the seventies and New Worlds magazine was still publishing Moorcock's weirder flights of fancy in a climate more conducive to literary experimentation of such flamboyance, Rachel Redhead would be a household name and John Boorman would probably have followed Zardoz with an adaptation of something found here, probably starring Ollie Reed and Paula Wilcox. Unfortunately it's 2015, so until the stars realign, we'll have to make do with the Lulu versions for the moment.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

JLA: Earth 2


Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely JLA: Earth 2 (2000)
I wouldn't have bothered, but I actually thought this was the one Andrew Hickey wrote about in his fascinating analysis of Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory, which it wasn't.

Never mind. It seems decent anyway, or at least a massive improvement on Morrison's JLA: New World Order which was mainly about Superman growing a mullett. The art is mostly wonderful and redolent of Jean Giraud or Gaetano Liberatore except still with those fucking chins making everyone look like Jimmy Hill, Sammy Davis Jr. or Bruce bloody Forsyth. The story is paced so as to be readable and entertaining - as opposed to wilfully obscure and irritating - although I have no idea what the hell any of it is supposed to be about. Superman and pals travel to a mirror Earth in which everything good is bad and vice versa, and so the looking glass Justice League are dedicated to crime, murder, evil, the music of Jeff Lynne and so on. Superman and pals inevitably attempt to stomp the bad guys, but can't because this is a universe in which the bad guys always win; so they do something bad and win the day after all. So reality, both here and in our own universe, is dictated by narrative, which itself is a function of storytelling and hence human perception. as above, so below... er...

That's all I've got.

I'm sure there's more to it given Morrison's usual preoccupations, but it wasn't obvious to me, and I didn't care enough to feel like working it out. Earth 2 is very enjoyable, but probably makes more sense if you have more invested in caped stuff than I do.

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Haunter of the Dark


H.P. Lovecraft
The Haunter of the Dark and other titles (1950)

I'm confused. The introduction - unless I read it too fast in my haste to experience that sense-shattering horror which has sent even the most vigorous lunatic gibbering to the gallows in quest of merciful release from the depths of terror of a vintage so rich as to inspire even those amoral low-born ghouls of the night against whom even Vlad of the House of Drăculești might be deemed a reasonable, if not exactly amiable fellow to remark upon how that be some fucked-up shit right there - seemed to imply this was essentially a revised edition of The Outsider of 1939, the first ever published Lovecraft collection put together by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei; but although all fourteen of these tales appeared in The Outsider, that collection comprised thirty-six of Lovecraft's spookiest offerings, and was thus quite clearly a different entity.

Anyway, the illusion of this one comprising the first stories to be gathered together and reprinted as a proper book made sense as I was reading given that these, I would argue, might be considered Lovecraft's best by numerous criteria. For starters, not one tale opens with the usual ghostly house inherited from the uncle no-one wishes to discuss, and the majority of these seem conspicuously better written than his earlier, more campy efforts in which overcooked adjectival content serves to remind readers that we are supposed to be scared roughly every seven words; and he's reigned in the casual racism, at least a little. I therefore assumed these to have been tales written during the final stage of his life, by which point some of the more objectionable aspects of his personality had been smoothed out, which investigation reveals as being no more true than that this collection constitutes his greatest hits. I suppose then that he must have had good days and bad days, and his writing was accordingly variable.

Of what we have here The Whisperer in Darkness, The Colour Out of Space, and The Shadow Out of Time are at least as much science-fiction tales as they are horror, thus providing a welcome break from the clichés of the genre, in fact from the clichés of both genres; and the rest for the most part seems to avoid the kind of recycling which is found in at least a few of his other tales, aside from the predictable references to the usual forbidden books which, despite everything, must surely be amongst the most-borrowed titles from the Miskatonic library. The only problem - at least as I experienced it - is that horror fiction is essentially boring. It does one thing, and usually it does it for far too long, page after page, hammering the point home over and over. I state this in general ignorance of the genre, basing my view on what little I have read, which I presume to count for something given that the authors I've read are so often trumpeted as being the greatest the genre has to offer. I suppose there are exceptions such as Frankenstein, which is wonderful - obviously - but I've never regarded that one as entirely a horror novel.

Unfortunately, even at its best, Lovecraft's fiction tends to do one thing, usually for far too long, page after page, hammering the point home over and over; and so it all depends on how much you enjoy that one thing. I sort of enjoyed most of this - particularly those tales which, tinged with science-fiction, almost managed to do two things - but yeah - slimy slimy, sounds horrible, we get it.

The reduced level of overt racism additionally seemed a welcome change to the norm - a few instances of nigger and dago, but thankfully bereft of the usual qualifying disparagements. Of course, the problem with Lovecraft is that even without actual racial slurs, so much of his horror is either inspired by or else serves as a metaphor to his odious views, informed as they were by an extended childhood spent rotting away in a cloying familial environment, isolated from any real world experience which might have enlightened him as to the extent of his own bullshit; and so Lovecraft's world is that of the white Protestant man-child clinging to mummy's protective bosom, convinced of his own superiority based on secondary - and inevitably biased - accounts of all those degenerate mud races with their weird thumpa thumpa thumpa music and smelly food. His was the same mindset to which Nigel Farage tailors his political rhetoric, and sadly this permeates much of Lovecraft's fiction even without the name-calling.

In later life, as he found his horizons expanded, it seems his views either changed or else were at least tempered by contact with the outside world, and his fear of the unknown and degenerate dragging humanity back into the ooze achieves a subtle shift of emphasis as cosmic horror. It's still fear of the unknown but is directed outwards, expressing Lovecraft's commendable natural curiosity about science and the outside world - that which was denied him for longer than was probably healthy. Therefore in tales such as The Dunwich Horror we find an odd possibility of the monsters themselves being victims of external forces, as opposed to the usual variation on coming over here and taking our jobs. Further, to Lovecraft's awakening sense of wonder and obvious fascination with the known limits of science and the world around him, he was also clearly fascinated with that which horrified him, hence, I suppose, the extended page counts of some of the more repetitive tales. This, I would suggest, may be what makes his work readable, despite an often unpleasant subtext - even when he was pointing a finger and holding his nose, he was at least in a sense exploring rather than expressing only disgust. That's my theory, and I'm sticking to it.

...except I suspect the actual chronology of when these tales were written contradicts my image of Lovecraft gradually coming to terms with his own ignorance and in doing so becoming a better writer. Well, for whatever reason, The Haunter of the Dark was certainly more readable than previous collections.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Animal Man: The Hunt


Jeff Lemire & Travel Foreman Animal Man: The Hunt (2012)
Sufficiently impressed with Scott Snyder's revived Swamp Thing, I continue my cautious return to the DC universe with Animal Man on the grounds that it apparently crosses over with the aforementioned vegetable-based title and might therefore aid my appreciation of the same even if it turns out to be shit. I suppose given how many times Animal Man continuity has been subject to the reset button during previous runs means that one more revision isn't such a big deal. Most of the stuff introduced by Grant Morrison and Jamie Delano remains in the recipe, mostly just off camera so we don't have to get ourselves too bogged down in who or what B'wana Beast was supposed to be. It probably helps that the previous version of the comic came to such a terrible end with a storyline I had trouble remembering even as I was reading it and some of the worst art I've ever seen in a mainstream comic book - the stuff of superheroes drawn with leaky biro on the back of an exercise book during an unusually sucky history class. That thing really looked like shit by the end, and I felt dirty each time I bought an issue like the loyal completist moron that I was.

So even had all-new Animal Man been illustrated through the magic of the potato print, it still would have been ahead of the game. Happily it isn't illustrated by potato print, but rather by someone called Travel Foreman. Travel was a verb rather than the name of a person last time I looked, but I don't really care because the art is mostly great, probably better than it has ever been on this book. Foreman contrasts large areas of flat colour with scrabbly ink drawings achieving an effect - to well and truly nail my colours to the mast here - not unlike that of the cartoon strips in the 1976 Dr Who Annual or thereabouts. It manages to seem both ugly and beautiful at the same time, and doesn't really suggest comic book so much as illustration.

I'm still not sure about the actual story, or what's going on as yet, but it seems decent and has done nothing to annoy me, so I'll probably stick with it on the understanding of it most likely getting better as it continues over subsequent collections. I loved Morrison's run on this title, but the art always seemed a bit basic and crappy to me; and what followed Morrison was generally great, although I've never been that wild about Steve Dillon's art - it always felt competent, but somehow phoned-in and lacking feeling; so it feels like Animal Man has at least been done some justice, or at least has no significantly underwhelming links in its chain for more or less the first time; and, without making too much in the way of a massive statement, it feels like the book at last knows what it's trying to do.